GABF…the Oscars of Beer

October 22, 2012


Have you ever been impacted so heavily by a dream, movie or experience that it stays at the forefront of your mind for days, weeks or even longer after the experience? Well you would know exactly what that’s like if you’re a fan of craft beer and visit the Great American Beer Festival, commonly known as GABF. It was just over a week ago that myself and our co-owners Todd and Suzie Ford arrived back in Charlotte from our five day stay in Denver, CO where we represented NoDa at the massive beer fest. This was the first time NoDa Brewing was represented at GABF since we are still not 1 year old yet and the impression will last a lifetime. I am personally somewhat of a pseudo-veteran of the GABF, having attended the event for three years in a row prior to this recent visit. It was a great honor to share what would be my fourth GABF year with the first visit for Todd and Suzie. Even though I had extensive experience at GABF prior to this year’s visit, I was still unprepared for the sensation of representing our own products from our booth amongst over 500 other craft breweries from all over the country.

The arrival in Denver itself is somewhat of a craft beer geek dream. Those of us who do not live on the west coast or in the many beer-centric cities of Colorado are not accustomed to seeing so many craft beer minded locations all around the town. In fact, many can come to GABF and never step foot in the actual event sessions and be completely packed with craft beer events all around town. It seems that every bar with a few craft tap handles is doing some sort of event to celebrate GABF and take advantage of the plethora of influential craft beer icons present in the city for the week. Even though Denver offers a huge amount of exciting events focused on various aspects of craft beer, I highly recommend to any GABF attendee to arrive a day earlier than the first session and take a trip to one of the nearby craft beer cities. 

For the past several years, my first stop after getting off the plane at Denver International is not Denver itself but another city within an hour’s drive from the airport. This year we were lucky enough to visit two of my favorite city destinations away from the GABF center of Denver: Boulder and Fort Collins. 

On Wednesday we drove up to Boulder and visited Upslope Brewery. This brewery pumps out some awesome beers and does so in a very limited space considering the amount they put on the market each year. The small tasting room gives you plenty of table space to sample the large flight tray that I recommend you grab; they have something for every palate. 

Soon after we finished our flights, we went right down the road to Wild Goose Canning. After the warm welcome from their staff we got to see every aspect of their production and fabrication of some very nice canning lines. This obviously wasn’t a place for the tourist visitor to head to but it had a huge impact on my experience as head brewer to see the first example of what our brewery’s packaging line may be one day. 

After visiting the folks at Wild Goose Canning we decided to head over to one of my favorite spots in Colorado, the Avery Brewery and Taproom. There’s something about sitting around hundreds of barrels while sipping beers you’ve never heard of and probably will never see again that just turns the experience into a craft beer heaven. This was my third visit to Avery and every year they have completely different one off beers or rare selections that I truthfully never see after the visit, so if you’re into rare beer, you know where you have to go now. 

The first event day of GABF is Thursday evening but we didn’t stay in Denver long. Shortly after waking up at our hotel we rode up to Fort Collins where we spent a solid four and a half hours touring the amusement park, uh I mean brewery known as New Belgium. This place was unreal, and the welcoming we received from the staff was even greater. 

One thing you will find in the beer industry is camaraderie, and it’s a standard that brewers take care of brewers. We were welcomed into a VIP tasting area where they catered delicious food and served unique beers from taps sitting right on the divider to their pilot system. A system that looked better than many small breweries I’ve seen. We received an amazing tour from the one and only Matty Smooth that took us through both (yeah there’s two buildings) of their massive production and packaging facilities while notating not only the huge growth and output that the brewery has but also the extreme lengths they go to act as environmentally friendly as possible. 

We ended up in their barrel room which was basically a forest of foeders, which are basically oak fermenters that are 10-20 times the size of a normal oak barrel. It was an amazing experience and I appreciate the hospitality given by the staff. 

Before heading back to Denver we made a quick stop at what by name you wouldn’t think would be a craft beer destination, Choice City Butcher and Deli. The place is very warm and inviting, as is the staff, and the craft beer selection is simply amazing. Both bottles and draft will have you drooling I promise. After a quick bite to eat we bolted down to Denver to get set up at our booth to represent NoDa for the very first time at the country’s biggest craft beer showcase!

One thing that GABF does well is grow, and each year I have attended has trumped the prior year. GABF seems to increase in statistical growth every year in number of attendees, beers poured, breweries present etc… and this year we saw over 100 more breweries pouring in the great hall than last year’s count, an impressive indication of the growth seen recently in the industry. It’s hard to imagine this event growing; however, the first impression that blew my mind when I arrived at GABF four years ago was the enormity of the great hall. Every year the bellowing echoes of the massive room and its awkward, orange-tinted lighting overwhelms the senses and it takes some time to get accustomed to what is easily the largest collection of booths and taps I’ve personally ever seen. 

As we walked through the doorways on our first day I stopped several feet on the other side of the door, turned around and watched as Todd and Suzie came through and stood there with my arms open and simple said “welcome…” as if presenting a new city in itself. As we roamed through the several isles of booths prepping for the onslaught of beer enthusiasts we were welcomed by the many southeastern breweries that lined our side of the isle as we approached our individual booth. GABF staff had everything set up, all the beer ready to go and pitchers filled with volunteers anxiously awaiting information on each beer and we finally had a slight feeling of familiarity, pouring our beer. We gave the volunteers quick run downs on our four beers poured at the festival, Ghost Hop, Coco Loco, Hop Drop n’ Roll, and Monk’s Trunks and before we knew it, the gates were down and in came the festival attendees. 

One aspect that really sets GABF apart from other festivals that are local or regional is that most people don’t flock to breweries that are new, they flock to the breweries that they read about or hear about all the time but can’t get. Even with this consideration, I was still shocked at the number of patrons that came directly to our booth after entering and the many people who stated that they had heard much about us or were told that they “had to get some NoDa”. The more impressive part of it was most of these people didn’t even live on the east coast. It was a thrill I’ll never forget and I had a blast meeting new NoDa drinkers and telling them probably way more than they ever wanted to know about the beer. I feel slightly bad for the volunteers who were there to pour because I’m pretty sure I cut them off many times on the way to pour for patrons. It was also a whole new thrill to have other brewery reps come over to try the beer. Many of these individuals I’ve admired for many years and to have them drink a product that we made and approve of it is an indescribable sensation.

Friday started out just as epic as Thursday did with the fourth annual Denver Rare Beer Tasting hosted by my great friend, Rick Lyke, and Pints for Prostates. Rick has been kind enough to allow me to come to GABF with him to help promote Pints for Prostates and set up for the Rare Beer Tasting over the last four years and is therefore responsible for my prior GABF experiences. The event is an epic tasting of over 28 breweries that are represented by their most recognizable representatives and are pouring the rarest beer they have to spare, all for the sake of charity. Trying to describe all the different beers and their amazing qualities would need a whole new blog so simple put, if you think you’re going to Denver around the GABF time next year, you’d hate yourself for not going to this event, it’s really world class. After the astounding selection of rare beers at Denver Rare Beer Tasting, we jetted over to the great hall once again for the second session of GABF where much of the same experiences from the first night took place. 

Saturday morning came fast and we once again jumped right into action and headed to the coliseum for the GABF awards ceremony. This is basically the Oscars of the US craft beer scene and it showed at the ceremony. Usually the ceremony is done in the back corner of the great hall with a stage set up so the patrons can cheer on the winners but with over 100 new breweries attending this year they cleverly moved the ceremony to the coliseum’s theatre. The beautiful theatre was an excellent choice and really matches the overall spectacle which is the GABF. 

Being a brewery that was just now 11 months old, we went in without expecting any recognition or award at all, so we attended mostly for support and to experience the awards ceremony in its entirety. We jumped for joy when we heard our Charlotte neighbors Olde Mecklenburg Brewery win a silver for their Oktoberfest Marzen, Mecktoberfest. It was very nice to see a Charlotte based brewery recognized with an award at GABF. We were also excited to see Carolina Brewing company win a bronze for Sky Blue and went to our feet again when Mother Earth Brewing won a bronze medal for their Dunkel, all well deserved and again excellent for NC breweries to be represented with medals. 

Toward the end of ceremony our friends from Holy City in Charleston grabbed a Gold for their Pluff Mud Porter in the Brown Porter category and we once again shared excitement for seeing our friends win a medal. As we settled into our seats after the Brown Porter category finished, it was time to see who the Robust Porter winners were. This was one of the last categories left in the long ceremony and was the last category we had sent any beer to. 

The bronze medal was announced and as I stared down at my merchandise bag at my feet that had shifted while sitting I heard the phrase “and silver goes to Coco Lo…” and before the rest of the words came out of the announcer’s mouth Todd, Suzie, and I all jumped in the air in screams of excitement as we realized we had just been awarded a medal at our first GABF. There aren’t any words to describe the feeling and the rush we had over the next few moments. To be there with Todd and Suzie and knowing the work we had done to get the brewery up and running to where it is today and to receive recognition like that is something I’ll cherish forever. 

To have our good friends, Rusty and Nancy, who had seen us go from doing tastings at Todd and Suzie’s house to building out the facility to now and to be next to my friend Charles who had seen and helped in just about every small home brewed concoction I ever created was an award in itself. We ran down to the stage from our seats… got lost, ran back up and around some more seats and finally got to the stage where we fist bumped Charlie Papazian after he placed the medal around my neck. I had dreamed about doing something funny or over the top on stage if I ever won anything at GABF but all I could do is tremble, smile, and say “This is a dream come true, thank you” to Charlie. 

After the ceremony closed and we held back tears of excitement, joy and fulfillment and we marched out into the hall to lead us back to the great hall for the third session of GABF where we united with all of our friends to congratulate each other for the medals and rejoice in the occasion.

The highlight of the trip to me was really standing back behind our booth before the third session started. We had great beers poured at the entire section and managed to have several of our breweries recognized along the way. We had our own semi-celebration party behind the booth and I let the volunteers pour for a bit while we all took pictures and congratulated each other again for the wins. It’s at this point where most of the reality of the situation starts sinking in. An honor I had not even considered before occurred to us. In that with the silver medal wins for Olde Mecklenburg Brewery and NoDa Brewing Company, we became the first Charlotte based breweries to win a GABF medal in 20 years. After winning a GABF medal you are given not only the medal itself but also a sticker to indicate on your booth sign which beer won so patrons can hunt down the medal winning brews. Needless to say we ran out of Coco Loco pretty fast. 

That evening, we went for celebratory dinner in Denver. That night we didn’t celebrate much externally but celebrated to ourselves as we spent most of the night responding and posting appreciation to all the wonderful support and congrats that we received via social media, calls and emails from our fantastic group of fans, friends and family.

That Sunday morning came early as usual and we rode up for our flight out of Denver. Even with little sleep the excitement of the trip was still pumping through our veins and filled most of our thoughts throughout the trip. We had come out to the biggest show in craft beer and made an impression on festival patrons, met tons of amazing people in the industry, saw amazing breweries and facilities and even got acknowledged for our work in the end. Even if we didn’t medal at all, this was still the best GABF I have ever attended. I am so proud to be a part of the beginning of this brewery, brewing with this great staff, and being a part of its future. I can’t wait to see what new ways the wonderful GABF staff will make this amazing experience masked as a “festival” better each year. So if you are heading to GABF next year, stop by the booth, we’ll be there waiting for you!